7/12/2016, Right Wisconsin – Bet you didn’t know this:  a typical motorist in Wisconsin’s four neighboring states pays an average of 61 percent more in gas taxes and registration fees than a Wisconsin driver.

Not buying that?  Here are the annual numbers, state by state, for a late model car driven 12,000 miles a year:

  • Wisconsin — $274
  • Michigan — $323 (18% higher)
  • Illinois — $452 (65% higher)
  • Iowa — $488 (78% higher)
  • Minnesota — $501 (83% higher)
  • Four-state average — $441 (61% higher)

While the tax at the pump in all five states is similar, vehicle registration fees are much higher in Minnesota and Iowa.  Registration fees are twice as high in Michigan and about a third higher in Illinois, where local option fees and taxes also jack up the total bill.

The comparatively low Wisconsin number results largely from the legislature’s decision a decade ago to stop indexing Wisconsin’s gas tax to annual changes in the cost of living.  The result has been a flat tax that, in real terms, is down about 17% since 2006.  Considering that road repair and construction costs have grown faster than general inflation, the real decline actually is even greater than 17%.

Wisconsin has responded to the declining purchasing power of the gas tax by going on a borrowing binge.  This began under the Doyle Administration and has continued since Republicans took control of state government in 2010.  Consider:

  1. Total transportation debt service in 2006 was $189 million.
  2. In 2015 that number had ballooned to $473 million, an increase of 150%.
  3. The figure will be higher at the end of the current budget biennium, when the state will issue $850 million more transportation debt.

The reason there is an ongoing debate over transportation finance in Wisconsin is that current trends are not sustainable.  Wisconsin can’t afford to dig an even deeper debt hole.  The choices are not complicated.  Either increase the comparatively low costs that motorists now face or begin a program of disinvestment in adequate state roads.